22 . . . Over the Hill?

Elizabeth Hanna Pham

When I was little and went to the grocery store with my mom, I liked to occupy myself by looking at greeting cards. There were funny cards, cheesy cards, stupid cards, pretty cards, sentimental cards — and I found it all very interesting.  But perhaps most interesting of all were the cards for those people turning forty or fifty.  They actually disturbed me a little bit.  There was so much color on all the other ones but when you got to these, it was like they were the death cards.  And if you didn’t know how to read you might as well have assumed that that’s exactly what they were.  Cards for the dead people . They were almost always black and they might even have a reference to a grave stone or something else rather morbid.  You’d open the card and there would be some sort of half-hearted, well, at least you can celebrate.

To little me, this was very confusing.  Birthdays were supposed to be a great thing! When and why do they become so terrible?  And if they are so terrible, why even celebrate them?  Why buy a card?  Why not pretend they aren’t even happening? Unfortunately, as I grew older, I began to realize that this indeed is the coping mechanism of choice for many people — pretend they’re not even happening or get drunk enough to forget they’re happening.

And what’s even sadder is that that age — 40 to 50 has lowered dramatically. Ironically, as our life expectancy increases it seems that we become more and more afraid of getting older.  Now it’s not the dreaded 40.  It’s the dreaded 30.  Because the end of your twenties is like the end of your life.  But it seems to trickle down even further.  I can count on one hand the number of peers I have who are actually excited about turning anything above twenty-one.  Indeed, you hear some version of this all day or all week long on your twenty-first birthday:

Enjoy it! It’s the last birthday worth celebrating anyway.

To make matters worse, it’s not even the first twenty years that are considered the prime.  It’s roughly the years between sixteen and twenty-one.  So while the adults are all wishing they could go back, with each year our culture is shoving the ten-year-olds further and further into a desperate climb towards the day they can get their license or the day they can drive off finally to the freedom of college.  We literally act as if life is only great for six or so years.  And we counsel those living them to live them well as they pass quickly and they’re gone before you know it.

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but this just doesn’t seem to cut it.  To live a life in which you believe that six out of your eighty or so years are going to be anything worth your time doesn’t sound like a life very much worth living.  There has got to be something more. There’s got to be a better answer.  Especially for women.  For women are probably the most plagued by this syndrome.  We all know how increasingly mature little girls are starting to dress.  And we all know how much older women are increasingly desperately pouring themselves and their money into “miracles” of botox and tucks and suctions and add-ons and push-ups and cover-ups.  Women are told a lie that with each year gets stronger and stronger.  And this lie is that their sexual prime is what defines them.  And that the time before and after it will never measure up.  If we were animals, I could maybe understand this lie, and it might not be such a lie.  But we’re not animals.  And I’m pretty sure life has more to offer.  And I’m pretty sure that most of us would agree it does.  But even if we won’t outright say it, why do we continue to perpetuate the lie?

I believe we do because we are part animal.  And we have instincts.  And when we start down the road of instincts, when we start to let instincts take over, we begin to forget about everything else.  We all know how increasingly sexualized our culture is becoming.  But why at such a fast rate?  And why is it so overwhelming?  Because instinct is strong.  And when let to run wild, it runs wild and it knocks over everything in its path.  We have, as a culture, let the sexual instinct rule.  Just listen to the beats and the grunted words coming from so many of the songs on the radio.  Sometimes they don’t even sound human.  And I would argue, that at some point, they aren’t human anymore.  We have resigned ourselves to the part of us that is enslaved to the instinct. And once we are enslaved to the instinct it is very, very difficult to turn back.  Even if we have many wonderful things in our life at thirty we can’t help but gaze backwards at the women younger than us, increasingly anxious as we see ourselves looking older and getting further and further away from that prime.  The more sexually focused our culture becomes, inevitably the more sexually focused we become.  The more instinct driven the advertisements and people and movies and music around us become, inevitably the more instinct driven we are pressured to become.  Because our culture is our pack. And in the wild, the pack defines your survival.

But the good news is, we are not all animal.  We are human.  And our humanity raises us above the silliness of the pack.  Our humanity allows sexuality to be merely a facet of who we are, and even still, our humanity makes sexuality so much more beautiful than it ever was when ruled by instinct.  Humanity has so, so, so much more to offer. Humanity is not the time between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one.  Humanity is eternal.  But we cannot know and fully understand and fully reap the benefits of being human until we learn to stop looking backwards (or forwards) in anxiety.  We have to accept where we are and until we do that we will never know what that point in eternity has to offer us. Sadly, too many ten-year-olds will never have known the beauty of being ten.  Sadly, too many forty-year-olds will never have known the beauty of being forty.  And sadly, too many people will have lived and died without ever having known the beauty of being human.  All they will remember is the crazy party days of satisfied instinct.  That will be the summit and high point of their lives and how sad that is.  So I challenge us to resist being slaves to the instinct.  There’s no need to be.  (Besides, it’s a losing game anyway!  There’s no rush and there’s no ticking clock.  And to live like there is, is to miss life itself.)  So celebrate your birthday this year.  Tell everybody how old you are and how proud you are of it because it’s a beautiful and amazing thing.  And the more you choose to act like it, the more you’ll believe it and see how true it really is.  In turn, you will then give others the courage to be human too.


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